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Revolution and Freedom in Theodor Mommsen's "Rmische Geschichte"

Author(s): James F. McGlew


Source: Phoenix, Vol. 40, No. 4 (Winter, 1986), pp. 424-445
Published by: Classical Association of Canada
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REVOLUTION AND FREEDOM
IN THEODOR MOMMSEN'S ROMISCHE GESCHICHTE
JAMES
F. MCGLEW
I
IN THE HALF-CENTURY BEGINNING AROUND
1830,
German readers of narra-
tive
history
were
presented
with a
great
number of histories of revolutions
and of
revolutionary ages.
The authors of these histories were almost all
liberals,
among
them
many
of the most illustrious names of two
generations
of German
scholarship, including
Carl von
Rotteck,
Friedrich
Christoph
Dahlmann,
Johann
Gustav
Droysen, Georg
Gervinus,
and Heinrich von
Sybel.1
This interest in revolution as an historical event was not mere
fashion. An
array
of the most
important
and
troubling political questions
of
that
explosive age hinged
on the
interpretation
and evaluation of
revolution,
such as the
question
of the
legitimacy
and the limits of
popular political
expression
and
resistance,
and of the nature and
integrity
of law and the
state.
Through
an evalution of
revolution,
liberals
hoped
to formulate their
stance vis-a-vis the
progressive
currents of the
day,
and to secure their
position against
their chief
opponents
in the first half of the nineteenth
century,
the
conservatives,
and
later,
during
and after the
revolutionary
events of
1848,
against
the nascent left.2 Liberals were
convinced, moreover,
that an evaluation of the
potential
and
significance
of
popular
revolution was
impossible
without a serious consideration of the role that revolution occu-
pied
in
history.
Despite
the diverse character of the
periods
studied and the
divergent
T.
Mommsen,
R6mische Geschichte
(Munich 1976,
based on the 9th
printing [1902-1904]
of
the
original
edition,
to which
page
citations here
refer)
is abbreviated below
RG,
R6misches
Staatsrecht3
(Berlin 1887)
is abbreviated
Staatsrecht,
and R6misches
Strafrecht (Berlin 1899)
is
abbreviated
Strafrecht.
C. von
Rotteck,
Allgemeine Weltgeschichte fur
alle Stinde 4 vols.
(Stuttgart 1833);
F. C.
Dahlmann,
Geschichte der
englischen
Revolution
(Leipzig 1844); J.
G.
Droysen, Vorlesungen
iiber das Zeitalter der
Freiheitskriege
2 vols.
(Kiel 1846);
G.
Gervinus,
Geschichte des neuzehn-
ten
Jahrhunderts
seit den Wiener
Vertragen
8 vols.
(Leipzig 1855-1866);
H. von
Sybel,
Geschichte der Revolutionszeit von 1789 bis 1800 5 vols.
(Dusseldorf 1853-1879).
2Sybel's
1858
essay,
"Uber den Stand der neueren deutschen
Geschichtsschreibung,"
Kleine
historische
Schriften
1
(Stuttgart 1880),
locates the difference between liberal and conservative
historiography
in the
interpretation
of revolution: "Conservatives
portray
the modern revolu-
tions as
though they
were the
simple products
of riotous
demagogues
and
godless philoso-
phers" (357).
The
essay
also shows how well the liberals understood that their formidable
political opponent
came at this
point
from the left rather than the
right.
On
this,
see H.
Seier,
Die Staatsidee Heinrich von
Sybels
in den
Wandlungen
der
Reichsgriindungszeit
1862-1871
(Lubeck
and
Hamburg 1961)
23.
424
PHOENIX,
VOL. 40
(1986)
4.
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MOMMSEN'S ROMISCHE GESCHICHTE
approaches
of the various liberal
scholars,
this intensive interest in revolu-
tion led to a certain
uniformity
in
interpretation,
which is now
generally
known as the liberal
historiography
of revolution.3 Liberals located similar
and
fundamentally comparable patterns
of historical
development
in the
Reformation,
the Glorious
Revolution,
the Prussian
Reforms,
and the
French Revolution of 1789. All these
periods
were
represented-in
terms
that
now,
in the era of social
history,
look
untenably legalistic-as struggles
between
constitutionally progressive
and conservative
forces,
the former
claiming
to articulate the
Volkswille,
the ultimate
power
of the
nation,
while
the latter
comprised
the direct ministerial
authority
of the state. In the liberal
historical
schema,
conflict between a nation's conservative and
progressive
forces became revolution
when,
in a time of
crisis,
the older constitution
was no
longer
able to function and the nation was
compelled
to intervene
directly
in the
drafting
of a new one. Liberal historians
generally portrayed
legitimate
and successful revolutions as the
great
moments of a nation's
history,
and revolution itself was understood as an essential
liberating
force
in
history.
To be
sure,
liberals did not consider
every
revolution to be
legitimate
or
successful; for,
as
they
knew,
not
every
revolution could be
deemed to voice a nation's best interests or to result in a true
gain
in its
historical
development.
For
liberals,
who
represented property
and order as
inviolable human
rights
but also claimed to stand for the "renewal and
liberation"4 of the entire
nation,
the
question
of what constituted success
and
legitimacy
in a
past
or
contemporary revolutionary
movement was most
crucial and most difficult.
By
far the
greater part
of this liberal interest in the
interpretation
and
assessment of revolution was invested in studies of modern
history;
the
French
Revolution,
which
gave
birth to the modern revolution as both a
theoretical and a
practical problem,
was
naturally
the
great
favorite. But the
liberal
historiography
of revolution also extended to the field of ancient
history,
in
particular
to the
study
of the Roman
Republic,
where it has had a
lasting
influence. One
work,
although
seldom considered in the context of
the liberal
historiography
of
revolution,
was
chiefly responsible
for this
influence-Theodor Mommsen's Romische
Geschichte,
which was written
immediately
in the wake of the Revolution of
1848,
and
published
in three
volumes between 1854 and 1856.
Mommsen,
then still in his
thirties,
made
no effort to conceal the influence of liberal ideas
upon
his first
major
work.
He
employed
the theme of revolution-in the literal sense of a
simple
historical
cycle-to give
a
general shape
to
Republic's long
and
complex
history.
The Romische Geschichte handled the entire
period
from the fall of
3The liberal
historiography
of revolution has been the
object
of
many
studies.
Among
the
best in recent times are Karl Griewank's Der neuzeitliche
Revolutionsbegriff
(Weimar 1955)
and
M. Neumiiller's Liberalismus und Revolution
(Dusseldorf 1973).
4Sybel (above,
n.
2)
1.352-353.
425
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the
Tarquinian monarchy
at the end of the sixth
century
B.C. to Caesar's
victory
at the end of the
first,
as a
single
coherent historical movement that
began
and ended with an absolute
monarchy.
Revolution-in the more
conventional sense of an extreme
political
and social conflict-served as the
driving
force of the
Republic's
internal
development.
The Romische Geschich-
te
presented
the
revolutionary
overthrow of an
oppressive
monarch as the
founding
act of the
Republic,
while it located the demise of the
Republic
in a
long
and
gradual
revolution that was born with the
Republic
and
grew
in
strength
as the
Republic aged.
The attention
given
to the
concept
of revolution was one of the chief
novelties of the Romische Geschichte.
Indeed,
from Mommsen
originated
the
designation
of the crisis of the final
century
of the
Republic, beginning
in
the time of the
Gracchi,
as the "Roman Revolution."
Fifty years
after the
publication
of Ronald
Syme's
The Roman
Revolution,
the name and the
emphasis
that it
implies
are
thoroughly commonplace.5
But at the time
of Mommsen's
writing, they
were not. Mommsen's
great predecessor,
Barthold
Niebuhr,
working
in the time and
spirit
of the Prussian
Reforms,
had
attempted
to
show,
in his own R6mische Geschichte
(1811-1832),
that
the intention behind the Gracchi's
agrarian
laws,
the basis of their reforms
and the
beginning
of Rome's
great
difficulties,
was
essentially
conservative.
Mommsen,
working
from a
very
different
approach,
was far less concerned
with the intention or even the content of the laws that the Gracchi
proposed
than with the character of their actions and the short and
long
term
repercus-
sions on the constitution. He was convinced that the Gracchi and the re-
sponse
of the senate to the Gracchi
provided
the
Republic's history
with its
great
climax;
in other
words,
the
uprisings
associated with the name of the
Gracchi in the latter half of the second
century
B.C. were
anticipated by
the
entire course of
Republican history
until that
point
and their failure
brought
the
Republic
to its conclusion in the
"military
monarchies" of
Pompey
and
Julius
Caesar as a matter of
necessity.
Hence,
for
Mommsen,
although
Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus
may
have harbored the
hope
of
reforming-
rather than
subverting-the Republic's constitution,
their actions
compelled
the
historically progressive
forces of
Rome,
"in a
constantly accelerating
progression,
from reform to
revolution,
from revolution to
anarchy,
and
from
anarchy
to war
against property."6
50n the relation of R.
Syme's
The Roman Revolution
(Oxford 1939)
to Mommsen's Romische
Geschichte,
see the comments of K.
Christ,
"Crisi della
Repubblica
e 'Rivoluzione
Romana',"
Labeo 26
(1980)
82-90
(reprinted
in Rivoluzione
Romana,
In chiesta tra
gli
antichristi 6
[Naples
1982] 11-19).
Mommsen later related in a letter to Gustav
Freytag
that a lecture on the Gracchi
brought
him an invitation to
compose
a
history
of Rome from the
publishers
Karl Riemer and
Salomon Hirzel. See Lother Wickert's
biography,
Theodor Mommsen. Eine
Biographie
4 vols.
(Frankfurt 1959-1969)
3.655-656.
6RG 3.470. In the
language
common to Heinrich von
Sybel
and liberal
political theorists,
this
is the movement from
reform,
to limited
revolution,
to absolute
revolution,
and
finally,
to
426
PHOENIX
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MOMMSEN'S ROMISCHE GESCHICHTE
But
despite
the
place
that the notion of revolution has come to
occupy
in
the
study
of Roman
history
and its
importance
for the liberal
historiograhy
of
revolution,
Mommsen's
concept
of
revolution,
as it
emerged
from the
Romische Geschichte and
pervaded
his other works on Roman law and
history,
has not received much consideration.7 This
study
will undertake to
remedy
this
oversight.
II
Mommsen
deliberately
set his R6mische Geschichte
apart
from the studies
of Roman
history
of the
preceding generation by infusing
it with his
rigor-
ous
methodological priority
of historical
processes
over first
causes,
and
in
particular
from Barthold Niebuhr's R6mische
Geschichte,
with his
thoroughgoing
insistance that Rome's
beginnings,
if
they
could be known
with
any certainty,
would
probably
be found to be far less than
impressive.8
But,
although
critical of his
predecessors'
search for first
causes,
Mommsen
was nonetheless
very
concerned to trace the first causes and
opening
moves
of Rome's
revolutionary
historical course.
Indeed,
Mommsen found the
necessary ingredients
for revolution in the social structure of the
prehistoric
city, long
before the first
signs
of its
destiny
as the master of
Italy
were
apparent.
In the R6mische
Geschichte,
the
original
Italic constitution is
represented
as a
monarchy
structured on
analogy
to the ancient Italic
family.
The
king
was a
pater familias
on a
grand
scale,
with an absolute
power
that mono-
polized
both the executive and
judicial
functions of the state. Hence the Italic
monarchy,
for
Mommsen,
was
comparable
to
any primitive
state whose
monarchy-a
formulation that
captures
the historical
inevitability
as well as the
political danger
that the liberals saw in revolution. See the account of H. von
Sybel's
still
unpublished
lectures
on
politics by
Folkert
Haferkorn,
Soziale
Vorstellungen
Heinrich von
Sybels (Stuttgart
1976,
Kieler Historische Studien
23),
on
revolution,
198-206. See also H.
Seier,
"Sybels Vorlesungen
iiber
Politik und die Kontinuitat des 'staatsbildenden'
Liberalismus,"
HZ 187
(1959)
90-117.
7The few recent treatments of Mommsen's notion of revolution
spring
from the re-evaluation
of the Roman Revolution that R.
Syme
has
inspired,
and are more concerned with the assets
and
shortcomings
of Mommsen's notion than with its context and
repercussions.
See,
for
example,
A. Heuss's "Der
Untergang
der romischen
Republik
und das Problem der Revolu-
tion,"
HZ 182
(1956) 1-28,
and K. E.
Petzold's,
"R6mische Revolution oder Krise der romis-
chen
Republik?,"
RivStorAnt 2
(1972)
229-243. On this re-assessment of the idea of the Roman
Revolution since
Syme's
The Roman
Revolution, see the collection of
essays
in Labeo 26
(1980)
dedicated to
Syme's
work,
and G.
Alfoldy's
Sir Ronald
Syme:
'die romische Revolution' und die
deutsche Althistorie
(SBHeidel 1983).
On Alfred Heuss's
attempt
to re-formulate the notion of
the Roman
Revolution,
see K. Christ's Romische Geschichte und die deutsche Geschichtswissen-
schaft (Munich 1982)
294.
8Hence the work's "Italian bias" and the
quotation
from
Thucydides'
famous
Prologue
at the
beginning
of Book 1 of the
RG,
"The
things
of old cannot be
clearly investigated
on account of
the
length
of
time;
and from evidence which seems to me for the most
part
reliable,
I do not
believe
they
were
considerable,
in reference to war or other
things."
427
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head
recognized
no
constitutionally
defined constraints to his
patriarchal
authority.
But Mommsen drew a
very precise
limit to this
comparison.
Unlike his
primitive
counterpart,
the
king
in the Italic state did not
represent
himself to his
community
as divine. "It would be a
mistake,"
Mommsen
wrote,
"to make a
theocracy
of the Roman constitution: never
were,
for the
Italians,
the notions of
god
and
king intermingled
in the
Egyptian
and
Oriental fashion. The
king
was not the
people's god
but rather the owner of
the state"
(RG 1.64).
The Roman
state, therefore,
was
essentially
secular,
and in this
secularity
Mommsen finds the earliest
proof
that the
sovereignty
of Rome rested with the
people
rather than with the
king:
"the Roman
community,"
Mommsen wrote in the first volume of his
history,
"just
like
the
German,
and
probably
like the oldest
Indo-european community,
was
the true and ultimate holder of the
concept
of the
sovereign
state." But this
sovereignty
was constitutional rather than
direct;
as he
immediately
adds,
"this
sovereignty
rested and
expressed
itself in the
ordinary
course of
things
solely
in the fact that the citizen
body voluntarily
bound itself to its
super-
ior. "9
Hence,
for
Mommsen,
the
founding principle
of the Roman state was
evident in nascent division between
sovereignty
of the
people
and ministerial
authority
of the
king
and his
equals,
the
senate,
before the
Republic
or
even,
paradoxically,
the
populus
Romanus existed-that
is,
before the clientes had
freed themselves from their
patrons
and come to form an
independent politi-
cal
body.
This was the foundation that Mommsen saw as the
guiding principle
of
the reforms of Servius Tullius and the eventual overthrow of the
Tarquinian
monarchy-movements
that Mommsen
represented,
in
fact,
as "conserva-
tive
revolutions,"
for their result was the elimination of the
extraordinary
power
of the
king
and the unification of the
magisterial power
of the state
into the
single body
of the Roman senate. From the fall of the
Tarquins,
the
executive
power
of the monarch
passed
to the consuls and other elected
magistrates,
while the
sovereignty
itself was
securely
invested in the comitia
centuriata,
the
principal political assembly
of the entire Roman
people.10
For
Mommsen,
the new formal
sovereignty
of the
community expressed
itself most
obviously
in the fact that the
popular assembly
now
directly
elected its own ministers. But in his treatment of the transition from the
9RG 1.72. This radical distinction between the
ordinary
and
exceptional
function of sover-
eignty
is
repeated
in Staatsrecht 3.314: "The comitia are
originally
the
possessors
of that
sovereign power
of state that does not come into force in the
functioning
of the
existing
order,
but rather when this is to be
changed
or set aside."
'?On the "conservative
revolution,"
see RG
1.257;
on
sovereignty,
cf. ibid.
1.254,
262-263.
See also Staatsrecht 1.13. For a recent
analysis
and
critique
of Mommsen's vision of the Roman
legal system,
see
J. Bleicken,
Lex
Publica,
Gesetz und Recht in der romischen
Republik (Berlin
1975) 6-51,
and on criminal law in
particular,
W.
Kunkel,
Untersuchungen
zur
Entwicklung
des romischen
Kriminalverfahrens
in vorsullanischer Zeit
(Munich 1962,
AbBayrAkadWiss.
NF
56).
428 PHOENIX
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MOMMSEN'S ROMISCHE GESCHICHTE
Roman
Monarchy
to
Republic,
Mommsen
placed
almost
equal emphasis
on
a
change
in the character of Rome's judicial
power.
This
change
was the
establishment of the
appeal
to the
people (provocatio
ad
populum)-a
pro-
cedure that the
king
had
employed
when he
thought
it
necessary
to invite a
review of
capital
decisions-as a
right
of
every
individual who was con-
demned to death
by
a civil
magistrate.
Mommsen dated the institution of
provocatio as a basic
right-differently
from what is now the
generally
accepted
view-to the lex Valeria of 509 B.C., hence to the
very
first
years
of
the
Republic.11
The
right
of
appeal
is a central theme in Mommsen's
understanding
of
Roman
history; indeed,
he made it a cornerstone of the
systematic
account
of Roman law that he
developed
and elaborated
through
the
great part
of
his career. In
fact, long
before he
began writing
the Romische
Geschichte,
Mommsen had decided that the
right
of
provocatio
was the essence of the
Roman
judicial system.
12
He had not
changed
his mind
by
the time he wrote
his mature studies of Roman
law,
the Staatsrecht and
Strafrecht.
There he
described the
judicial capacity
of the
comitia,
which heard
appeals
in the
early Republic,
as "the full and correct
expression
of Roman
freedom,"
and
the establishment of the
right
of
provocatio
itself as "the mark of
Republican
liberty,"
while the
disappearance
of the
right
of
provocatio
was
represented
as a fundamental mark of the transition from the
Republic
to the Prin-
cipate.13
It is not difficult to find an
explanation
for this interest in
provocatio,
which had not
previously enjoyed
a
particularly outstanding place
in
presen-
tations of Roman law. The
right
of
provocatio clearly appealed
to him as
the mark of a state that was founded
upon
a constitutional limitation of
magisterial power
over individuals. He attributed to the establishment of
provocatio
the fact that the
legal
execution of Roman citizens
gradually
disappeared relatively early
in the
history
of the
Republic,
and from that
11RG 1.248. For
problems
in Mommsen's
understanding
of the Valerian Laws and of
provoc-
atio in
general,
see
J.
Bleicken's
provocatio,
RE 23 A
(1959) 2446-2449, 2457-2460, and
J. Kunkel, (above,
n.
10)
24.
Against Mommsen, it is now
generally
believed that the various
leges
Valeriae of the fifth and fourth centuries are
probably
not historical, the Law of the Twelve
Tablets had no connection with the
right
of
provocatio,
and the institution of the
provocatio
should be dated to the third
(the
first that is
historical)
Valerian Law in 300 B.C. Kunkel has
recently gone
still farther and taken the extreme view that
provocatio,
once it became an
institution, applied only
to cases of
magisterial
coercitio
(ibid. 131).
In
partial
defense of
Mommsen, see P.
Garnsey,
"The Lex
Julia
and
Appeal
under the
Empire," JRS
56
(1966)
167-189, at 167-168.
12Mommsen's stress on
theprovocatio
is first
apparent
a decade before the RG in his review of
G. Gieb's Geschichte des rbmischen
Criminalprocesses
bis zum Tode Justinians
(Leipzig 1842),
in Neue
Jenaische Allgemeine Literaturzeitung (1844) 245-254, 257-265
reprinted
in Gesam-
melte
Schriften
8 vols.
(Berlin 1905-13)
3.469-494.
13Strafrecht 177; Staatsrecht 2.161-162, 2.114-116.
429
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point
the decision of life and death of individual citizens was removed from
the
sphere
of the state's
authority (RG 1.435-436).
The introduction of the
right
of
provocatio
with the Valerian Laws of 509
B.C., moreover,
was
represented
in Mommsen's Staatsrecht and
Strafrecht
as the critical
point
of
development
from
coercitio,
the
punishment imposed by
the
personal
deci-
sion of an individual
magistrate,
to
iudicium,
a
judgment
made in criminal
proceedings by magistrates charged
with this one task. In
short,
Mommsen
was convinced that
provocatio
made all the difference for the Romans be-
tween true civil
government-which
Mommsen believed the
Republic,
for
all its
faults,
was-and the
simple
form of
magisterial
command,
which
preceded
and followed it.14
Much in this
emphasis
on
provocatio
was common to the liberal
thought
of Mommsen's
day.15
But Mommsen
belonged
to the
vanguard
in his view
that the interdiction of the death
penalty-which
he saw as the ultimate
effect of the
right
of
provocatio-was
a chief characteristic of the civilized
state.16 In this context, one
aspect
of Mommsen's activities in the events of
1848 and 1849-into which he threw himself
whole-heartedly-deserves
brief mention. In
1849,
Mommsen wrote a
pamphlet commenting
on the
Statement
of
Rights
of
the German
People,
a
strongly-worded
but
politically
rather ineffectual document that was issued
by
the Frankfurter Parliament
earlier in the same
year.
Mommsen's
pamphlet gives
a
general image
of his
political leanings shortly
before he wrote the R6mische Geschichte but is
especially interesting
for its
praise
of the Parliament's
categorical rejection
'4RG
1.248. On the
significance
of the
right
of
provocatio
for the distinction between the
citizen and
non-citizen,
cf. RG
1.259,
where Mommsen
wrote,
"it became
necessary
to formu-
late
plebeian rights
more
exactly
and to
distinguish
the
expanded
citizen
body
from non-
citizens,
less because of the
voting rights
in the
centuria,
to which
only
established residents
were entitled
anyway,
than because of the
right
of
provocatio,
which
belonged
to the member
of the
plebs
but not to the
foreigner residing temporarily
or even
permanently
in Rome." The
connection between the
right
of
provocatio,
the limitations in the use of the death
penalty,
and
the
separation
of civil and
military governments
is restated at
Strafrecht
991,
and in an
essay
on
the
history
of the death
penalty
in Rome
(in
which Mommsen
explicitly
linked the
penalty
of death with the monarchical form of
government),
"Die Geschichte der Todesstrafe im
Romischen
Staat,"
(1896)
in Reden und
Aufsatze
2 vols.
(Berlin 1905) 1.437-448,
especially
440-441.
'5Mommsen
himself saw
something
of a
precedent
in
J.
Rubino's
Untersuchungen
uber
romische
Verfassung
und Geschichte 1: Uber den
Entwicklungsgang
der romischen
Verfassung
his zur
Hohepunkt
der
Republik (Kassel 1839).
See his remarks in his review of Gieb's
work,
Gesammelte
Schriften (above,
n.
12)
3.473.
'6Wilhelm
von Humboldt
certainly
did not exclude the death
penalty
from the
rights
of the
state in his famous Ideen zu einem
Versuch,
die Grenzen der Wirksamkeit des Staates zu
bestimmen of
1792,
which was the first and most radical statement of German liberalism. I do
not know if Mommsen was
directly
influenced
by
the
writings
of Cesare Beccaria or
Jeremy
Bentham and other leaders of the movement for
penal
reform in the late
eighteenth century,
but
he
certainly
shared
many
of their
political
convictions.
430 PHOENIX
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MOMMSEN'S ROMISCHE GESCHICHTE
of the death
penalty,
which it called "the most unnatural of all
penalties,"
while it
proclaimed
that "a civilized state finds its honor in the
repudiation
of
capital punishment."17
There is here a hint of a close
relationship
between
Mommsen's
interpretations
of Rome and his
understanding
of his own
society;
and the
emphasis
on criminal
law,
as the touchstone of a constitu-
tion's
validity
and a state's
worth,
is
clearly
crucial for that
relationship.
Not
surprisingly
this
emphasis
endured from the
very beginning
of Mommsen's
career to the
period
of his final
major work,
the
Strafrecht,
and was
closely
connected with much that was
unique
to his
interpretation
of Roman law
and
history.
But it is also not
surprising-given
such a
strong emphasis-
that his treatment of Roman law now seems
one-sided,
overly
interested in
portraying
the
history
of the Roman
legal system
as an isolated
develop-
ment,
and unaffected
by
external influences and most
especially by
the
expanding empire.
Mommsen was
convinced,
for
example,
that the notion
of the Roman
people's
maiestas and of the crimen
maiestatis, treason,
originated
as a
guarantee
of the
right
of tribunal intercession in the first
generations
of the
Republic,
a full two centuries before the
word, maiestas,
is first attested in
second-century
alliances between the Romans and the
Aetolians.18
The overall
plan
of the Romische Geschichte
provides
an elaborate histori-
cal
justification
for the connections Mommsen made between the constitu-
tional achievement of the
right
of
provocatio
and the foundation of the
Republic
and,
again,
between its
neglect
and the transition to the
Principate.
To be
sure,
Mommsen's
great
interest in Roman law did not lead him to
merge political
and constitutional
history
in the immediate manner of Mon-
tesquieu's
Considerations on the Greatness
of
the Romans and their Decline
a
century
earlier. Mommsen
interpreted
the overall course of
Republican
history
as the direct result of a series of
conflicts,
some
avoidable,
some
not,
that were
waged by
the Patricians and the
plebs, groups
defined
by disparate
'7Mommsen,
Die Grundrechte des deutschen Volkes mit
Belehrungen
und
Erlauterungen
(Neudruck
der
anonymen Erstausgabe
von
1849) (Frankfurt 1969) 14,
27. That the
anonym-
ous
commentary
is the work of Mommsen is
proved
in Wickert's "Nachwort" to the
reprint:
86-94. On the connection between the
pamphlet
and the
RG,
see K.
Christ,
(above,
n.
7) 59,
who
neglects,
however,
the
important
issue of the death
penalty.
'8For Mommsen's
early
interest in an account of Roman criminal
law,
see Mommsen's letter
(13.4.1877)
to Gustav
Freytag, quoted by
Wickert
(above,
n.
5)
3.655-656. On the fundamen-
tal
place
of the
right
of
provocatio
in the
Strafrecht,
see Heinrich Ritter von Srbik's
interesting
remarks,
Geist und Geschichte vom deutschem Humanismus bis zur
Gegenwart
2 vols.
(Munich
and
Salzburg 1951)
2.128. For more recent
interpretations
of
maiestas,
see H. G. Gundel's two
studies,
"Der
Begriff
maiestas im
politischen
Denken der Romischen
Republik,"
Historia 12
(1963) 283-320,
and "Der
Begriff
maiestas im Denken der
Augusteischen Zeit,"
in Politeia und
Res Publica.
Beitrdge
zum Verstandnis von
Politik,
Recht und Staat in der Antike dem An-
denken R. Starks
gewidmet (Wiesbaden 1969),
ed. P.
Steinmetz, 279-300,
and R.
Bauman's,
The Crimen Maiestatis in the Roman
Republic
and
Augustan Principate (Johannesberg 1967)
16-33.
431
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social and economic interests. For
him,
the fall of the
Republic
was
precipi-
tated
by
economic conditions: the influx of
cheap
labor,
an
unimpeded
accumulation of wealth in the hands of a
few,
the
impoverishment
of the
landless mass. He was convinced that
many
of the
political
innovations of
the
early Republic, including
the tribuni
plebis,
however vital for civil liber-
ties,
were mere evasions and ineffective
palliatives
that left the
underlying
economic
problems
untouched.19 Hence the R6mische Geschichte did not
weave the
story
of Rome's
greatness
and its decline with the
single
thread of
Rome's
original
constitution,
the
implicit agreement
between the ruler and
the ruled.
But,
at the same
time,
the constitution and its reforms were far
more than a mere balance sheet of the
gains
and losses of
opposing
social and
political
factions.
They
were understood in the Romische
Geschichte, rather,
as the
sphere
of human innovation and the sole
means,
in a civilized
state,
whereby
dilemmas caused
by
social and economic conditions could find
their
solutions,
and
were, therefore,
for
Mommsen,
as for all the liberals of
his
time,
the historian's
principal
concern. Thus the crucial
place
of the
constitution in the
Republic's
historical course: for
Mommsen,
the Roman
constitution was to a certain
point quite pliable;
it
might easily
be bent to
reflect
changes
in relative
political strength
and vicissitudes of
contending
groups.
But if the constitution were bent
past
a certain fixed
point,
it must
by necessity
shatter,
that
is,
the
implicit agreement
that it embodied between
the
people
and its ministers could no
longer
function,
and the fundamental
division between
sovereign power
and ministerial
authority
had to
collapse.
At that
point
the
Republican
form of
government
ceased to function and the
community
abdicated its
right
to self-rule.
In
following
the
history
of the
Republic's
constitution from its foundation
to its
demise,
the Romische Geschichte
began
with the
popular sovereignty
of the
early Republic,
a formal
sovereignty
that "in the
ordinary
course of
affairs,
voluntarily
bound itself to its
superior,"
and concluded with revolu-
tion,
the state of affairs that arises when the course of
things
is no
longer
ordinary
and the
sovereignty
of the
people
articulates itself in an unre-
strained and immediate manner. The
right
of
provocatio, which,
for Mom-
msen,
constituted the most
conspicuous
achievement of the overthrow of
the
Tarquinian monarchy
and the foundation of the
Republic,
served to
measure distances
along
this
path.
From the onset of the class conflict in
the first
generation
of the
Republic,
the
right
of
provocatio appears
in the
Romische Geschichte as the
special
interest of the
plebs
Romana,
and the
widening sphere
of the
right's application
is made to mirror the
growth
of
'9RG 2.276. Mommsen's
perception
of the
fundamentally
economic character of the
Repub-
lic and its
history
is stressed
by
K. Christ's
"Grundfragen
der r6mischen
Sozialstruktur,"
Studien zur antiken
Sozialgeschichte. Festschrift
Friedrich
Vittinghoff (Cologne
and Vienna
1980),
eds. W.
Eck,
H.
Galsterer,
and H.
Wolff, 197-228,
at 200-204.
432 PHOENIX
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MOMMSEN'S ROMISCHE GESCHICHTE
plebeian power:
with the establishment of the tribuni
plebis
in the
490s,
the court of
appeals
for convicted
magistrates passes
from the comitia cen-
turiata,
the
assembly
of the entire
people,
to the concilium
plebs,
the
pleb-
eian
assembly,
which the tribunes oversaw
(RG 1.271-272); by
451
B.c.,
the
right
of
provocatio
is extended from
capital
cases to those
involving high
monetary
fines
(RG 1.248);
in 449
B.C.,
the Dictator loses his
power
to
pass
sentence without
appeal (RG 1.285);
and,
finally,
with the reforms of Gaius
Gracchus-which,
to be
sure,
were never
fully
carried
through-the right
of
provocatio
was to
pass
to Roman soldiers who were convicted
by
their
military
commanders
(RG
2.107).
In Mommsen's
mind,
all these extensions
of the
right
of
appeal
stretched the letter and
spirit
of the
Republic's original
constitution
(see,
for
example,
RG
1.272).
In effect
they
transformed the
constitutional
legacy
of the entire
people
into the
insignia
and
weapon
of a
single
faction within the
people.
Moreover,
they
marked,
the
steps
of a
gradual
movement in which
originally
the
plebs,
and,
toward the close of the
Republic,
the
populares,
who claimed to
speak
for
it,
became less
willing
to
abide
by
the
original
conditions
implied
in the constitution of the
Republic.
For
Mommsen,
in other
words,
the lower class of Rome became
increasingly
less satisfied with the limitations of the formal
sovereignty
of the
populus
Romanus. Hence the advances made
by
the
plebs
until the time of the
Gracchi were
represented
in the R6mische Geschichte as an encroachment on
the
judicial
and ministerial function of the comitia and on the ministerial
function of the senate and thus a
danger
to the function of the entire state. In
the
language
of Mommsen's later studies of Roman
law,
the
plebs
in the
course of the
Republic's history
came
gradually
to the
point
of
erecting
a
"state within a state."20
For
Mommsen,
the
Republican
constitution was
seriously impaired by
these actions of Rome's lower classes. It was
manifestly
bent;
but still it did
not break.
Indeed,
Mommsen saw a
greater
threat to come from the
oppos-
ing
faction,
that
consisting
of the
Patricians,
in the
early Republic,
and of the
optimates,
after the
plebs
had
gained
access to all
political
offices. In Mom-
msen's account of the domestic
developments
of the later
Republic,
the
ruling
faction within the senate answered the movement of the
plebs
from
sovereignty
(as
the dominant
portion
of the
populus Romanus)
to actual
power
with a countermove of its own from
magisterial authority
to the
pretension
of
sovereignty.
The
precise legal
character of this countermove is
clearest in Mommsen's later treatment of the senate's
legislative response
to
the
revolutionary
stance of the lower
classes,
beginning
in 133
B.c.,
when
the senate dealt with the threat
posed by
Tiberius Gracchus. In the Staats-
recht and
Strafrecht,
this
period
was most notable for the innovation of the
senatus consultum
ultimum,
the
emergency
decree that bestowed extraordi-
20See
especially
Abriss des romischen Staatsrechts
(Leipzig 1907)
40.
433
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nary powers
on the
consuls,
which Mommsen
represented
as the senate's
response
to
provocatio,
as it had evolved
together
with the
power
of the
plebs.
He was convinced that senatus consultum
ultimum,
among
its other
powers,
allowed the
consul,
on whom the senate conferred
it,
to
ignore
a
citizen's
right
to
appeal.
Hence it was a return to the
extraordinary power
of
the
dictatorship-with
the essential difference that a dictator was
generally
appointed
as a
response
to threats to the nation from outside
it,
while the
senatus consultum ultimum countered
dangers
to the
hegemony
of the senate
from within. For
Mommsen, therefore,
the senatus consultum ultimum was
highly dangerous,
for it elevated the
political struggle
to a new level of
intensity
and was an
open
breach of the constitution in the fundamental
sense that it
appropriated
for the senate
rights
that
belonged
to the
political
organs
of the entire
populus
Romanus.21
The Romische Geschichte is notorious for
avoiding
the
language
and
per-
spective
of
legal history.
But the work's account of the aims and
logic
of the
senatorial
majority
and its leaders in the
period
from the reforms of Tiberius
Gracchus in 133 B.C.
through
the
conspiracy
of the Catilinarians in 63 B.C.-
the most famous occasion of the use of the senatus consultum ultimum-
accords
fully
with the assessment of Mommsen's later
judgment.
In the
Romische
Geschichte,
the reaction of the senate in no
way
ended the revolu-
tion of the
Gracchi,
but rather confirmed its historical course. "Restora-
tion,"
Mommsen reflected at this
point
in his
history,
"is
always
at the same
time revolution"
(RG 2.125).
The Gracchi had
sought
to extend their
power
beyond
the constitutional
limits;
the senate restored order
by succeeding
where the Gracchi failed.
Hence,
the senate no
longer
acted as the minister
of the
populus
Romanus,
but became a
tyrant.
Of
course,
Mommsen con-
ceded that it was due to the efforts of the senate that the
Republic's
constitu-
tion remained functional for
nearly
a
century
after the Gracchi first
attempted
to alter it. But from the death of Tiberius
Gracchus,
Mommsen was con-
vinced,
the conflict between
thepopulares
and the nobiles was destined to end
in the establishment of a new
monarchy.
Thus Mommsen's comment on the
conclusion of Sulla's
government:
The re-establishment of the
oligarchy
had
always brought
with it a
similarly inappro-
priate regime [Missregiment],
after the overthrow of the
Gracchi,
as well as after that
of Marius and
Saturninus,
but one so violent and also at the same time so
weak,
so
corrupt
and so
corrupting
had never before
appeared.
But when a
government
can no
longer govern,
it ceases to be
legitimate,
and whoever has the
power
has also the
right
21Staatsrecht
3.1242,
Strafrecht
257. In these works
(although
not
expressly
in the
RG),
Mommsen contends that the SCU was first issued in 133
B.C.,
as the senate's
response
to Ti.
Gracchus' reelection as tribune. This contention has been
disputed
most
recently by J.
von
Ungern-Sternberg,
who sees no evidence that a SCU served as the
legal
basis for the
killing
of
Ti.
Gracchus,
Untersuchung
zum
Spatrepublikanischen
Notstandsrecht: Senatus Consultum
Ultimum und die
Hostis-Erkl'rung (Munich 1970)
7-15.
434 PHOENIX
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MOMMSEN'S ROMISCHE GESCHICHTE
to overthrow it. It is
unfortunately
true that an
incompetent
and criminal
regime may
crush the
well-being
and honor of its land for a
long
time,
before the men are found
who are inclined and have the
strength
to turn the horrible
weapons
the
regime
itself
forged against
it and call forth a
legitimate
revolution from the moral
exasperation
of
the most able and from the
misery
of the
many.
But if the
game
with the
well-being
of
peoples may
be
amusing
and
may
be
played
without
interruption
for a
long
time,
this is nonetheless a
deceptive
game, that,
in its own
time,
will consume those who
play
it. And no one blames the axe that is set to the tree that
brings
forth such fruit.
This time had now come for the Roman
oligarchy.
The troubles in Armenia and the
Pirate Wars were the immediate causes of the overthrow of Sulla's constitution and
of the introduction of a
revolutionary military dictatorship.22
Mommsen,
like
many
of his liberal
contemporaries,
was convinced that
the ruler's ultimate task is to limit his own
power
and that revolution arises
most often from the
transgressions
of
legally empowered
authorities.23 For
him, therefore,
it was indeed a
"legitimate
revolution" that ended the
history
of the Roman
Republic.
Not the Gracchi or their
followers,
but rather the
constitutionally
defined
powers
of the state-the senate and the consuls
-held ultimate
responsibility
for the course the revolution
took,
for
they
over-extended their
power
and thus
rejected
the constitutional foundation of
their own rule. For
Mommsen, moreover,
the move from
transgression
to
revolution had an
immediacy
in
logic
if not in
time;
for
beyond
the constitu-
tion,
where reason and will are the
principal
actors,
there existed a
sphere
of
22RG
3.93,
see also 2.95. This accounts for Mommsen's
extremely
critical attitude toward
Cicero, who,
in his
eyes, naively
believed he could save the
Republic
while at the same time
violating
the most basic of the Roman citizen's
rights.
So,
for
example,
RG 3.191: "It was the
most ridiculous
touch,
such as is seldom absent from an historical
tragedy,
that this act of the
most brutal
tyranny
had to come about
through
the least
composed
and most fearful of all
Roman
statesmen,
and that the 'first democratic consul' should be elected to
destroy
the
Palladium of the old Roman communal
freedom,
namely
the
right
of
provocatio."
Cicero was
able,
of
course,
to
justify
his action
by claiming
that the senate had
stripped
the Catilinarians of
their Roman
citizenship,
and
that, therefore,
the
conspirators
had no
right
to
appeal.
Mom-
msen believed
(mistakenly)
that Cicero's
argument
was based in
fact,
rather than that it was an
impromptu legal
fiction of the
orator's,
but Mommsen's criticism is nonetheless
quite
severe.
See also
Strafrecht 256-257;
and as a corrective of the view that the SCU cancelled the
right
of
provocatio,
see C. H.
Brecht,
Perduellio: eine Studie zu ihrer
begrifflichen Abgrenzung
bis zum
Ausgang
der
Republik (Munich 1930)
205-209. On
Cicero,
see also Staatsrecht 3.1240-1241
and
Strafrecht
173,
where Cicero's act is called an
"unpolitical
and inhumane execution."
Mommsen's dislike of Cicero
(as
well as his attitude toward Caesar's
monarchy)
was
anticipated
by
W. Drumann in his Geschichte Roms in seinem
Ubergange
von der
republikanischen
zur
monarchischen
Verfassung
oder
Pompeius,
Caesar, Cicero,
und ihre
Zeitgenossen
6 vols.
(1834-
1844).
On Mommsen's
opinion
of
Drumann,
see Christ
(above,
n.
7)
45-48.
23See,
for
example, Johann Kasper
Bluntschli's
remark,
in
1864,
that revolution is not the
fault of revolutionaries but of statesmen "who abuse their
authority
and
damage
their office"
(quoted by
T.
Schieder,
"Das Problem der Revolution im 19.
Jahrhundert,"
HZ 170
[1950]
233-271,
at
242,
from the Deutsches Staatsworterbuch
8),
as well as Haferkorn's
analysis
of the
concept
of revolution in the
unpublished
lectures of Heinrich von
Sybel (above,
n.
6)
198-206.
435
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relations determined
solely by
natural
necessity.
The individual
magistrate
who violated the constitutional limits of his
power
entered this realm where
neither his office nor
any special privilege
could
protect
him.
So,
for exam-
ple,
in the
Strafrecht,
Mommsen wrote that "when a
magistrate pays
no
attention
[to
the
right
of
provocatio]
and executes someone
despite
it,
his
office does not
protect
him,
and his action is
regarded
as that of a
private
man,
hence he is
punished
as a murderer"
(167;
see also
43).
In much the
same
way,
the Romische Geschichte located the
collapse
of the
Republican
constitution in the establishment of a collective
tyranny,
which was
pun-
ished
by
the
people
as
though
it were a mere band of criminals.
The notion-that Mommsen embraced in the R6mische Geschichte and
later-of the
justifiability
of revolution and the conditional
right
of the
people
to resist links him with
many
of his liberal
contemporaries.
But it was
hardly
new to Roman
history.
It had lurked in the schools of Roman law as
early
as Bartolus of
Saxoferrato,
the
fourteenth-century
commentator of the
Digest,
whose work Mommsen
(who
himself
began
an edition of the
Digest
shortly
after
completing
the Romische
Geschichte)
must have known well.24
Bartolus had
argued
that even the
Principate
was founded on an
original
agreement
between the
people
and its ruler that defined the
scope
of that
ruler's
powers
and as well the
people's responsibility
to
obey.
For the
Bartolist tradition at the
peak
of its influence in the
Reformation,
as for
Mommsen in the nineteenth
century,
the ruler's
transgression
of his
power
renders the
agreement
on which his rule is based
invalid,
and it becomes the
right
of the
people
to reform that
agreement
as it sees fit.25
But,
for
Mommsen,
although
the revolution that
began
with the Gracchi
was a
legitimate expression
of the
sovereignty
of the
people
over a state
which had violated its
mandate,
the revolution itself was
anything
but a
success. In his
opinion,
the Roman
Revolution,
much like the French Revolu-
tion,
failed to establish a new
agreement
between
itself,
the
sovereign
power,
and a ministerial
authority.26
The
result, instead,
was a
monarchy
that reserved for itself all executive and
judicial powers,
that
is,
one in
which all
magistrates
were virtual
appointees,
and the
right
of
provocatio
no
24Mommsen's edition of the
Digest
was
completed
in 1869 and
published by
the Weid-
mannsche
Buchhandlung
in 1870.
25On the work and
thought
of Bartolus of Saxoferrato and its influence in the
Reformation,
see
Q.
Skinner,
The Foundations
of
Modern Political
Thought
2 vols.
(Cambridge 1978)
1.62-
65,
2.181-183. The
continuity
between the Reformation and modern notions of
sovereignty
is
the
subject
of F. H. Schubert's "Volksouveranitat und das
Heilige
R6mische
Reich,"
HZ 213
(1971)
91-122.
26Mommsen's
judgment
of the French Revolution
may
be seen in his review of
Adolphe
Thier's monumental Histoire du Consulat et de
l'Empire (1845-1862)
"Thiers und die Kaiser-
zeit,"
Preussische
Jahrbiicher 1
(1858)
225-244. There he condemns the revolution as "anti-
national"
(242)
for its failure to establish "a
truly representative government" (236)
and for its
attempt
to
impose
itself
upon
all of
Europe (243-244).
436 PHOENIX
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MOMMSEN'S ROMISCHE GESCHICHTE
longer
existed. What Carl von Rotteck said of the French
Revolution,
that
"tyranny
rises forth from the womb of the revolution itself and
destroys
its
finest
fruit,"27
agrees completely
with Mommsen's
portrayal
of the end of
the Roman
Republic.
Hence the Romische Geschichte's account of the Re-
public's
final
decades-conventionally,
the climax of the entire
history
of
the
Republic-was
dominated
by
the conviction that the
path
from the
Gracchi to Caesar was a
necessary
one and that no other end was
possible
(see
RG
2.95).
As a direct
consequence
of this
conviction,
Mommsen
refrained from a criticism of the
Principate's
institutions in his Romische
Geschichte: Caesar was himself
portrayed
as an
angel
of
necessity,
who
undertook the task of
reforming
the Roman constitution with as much
mercy
as it allowed
(see,
for
example,
RG
3.466-467).
III
So the Romische Geschichte included the essential
ingredients
of a liberal
interpretation
of
history
in
narrating
the
development
and demise of the
Roman
Republic.
In Mommsen's
hands,
Rome's
history
came to resemble
that of France at the turn of the
eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries: the
Republic
had its
intransigent nobility,
its frustrated
attempts
at
reform,
its
revolution and
revolutionaries,
its
Terror,
and of course its
Napoleon,
who
brought
the revolution to an
abrupt
close at the cost of all of its most
valuable
gains.
The
contemporary
tone of the R6mische Geschichte is one of
its most
outstanding
features. In this
respect,
Mommsen's
history
was to
some extent
anticipated by
the
J.
G.
Droysen's
Geschichte des
Hellenismus,
which
adopted
a
teleological perspective
borrowed from
Hegel
and icono-
clastically pronounced
the Hellenistic world
superior
to Classical Greece.
But
Droysen's history, although
acclaimed and
widely
read,
did not
ap-
proach
the
popularity
or influence of Mommsen's R6mische Geschichte. The
profound
"realism" of the R6mische Geschichte did not
escape
its
original
audience. Heinrich von
Sybel,
for
example,
saw and
appreciated
it as the
work's
great
virtue. "A book like Mommsen's Romische Geschichte is no
consummate work of
art,"
he wrote in his
general
review of the historical
scholarship
of the
1850s,
"Uber den Stand der neuen deutschen Geschichts-
schreibung" (1858),
"but it contains a direction
that,
with a
lively
force,
the
enthusiasm of a new
development,
and the
clarity
of an irrevocable
decision,
aims for the ideal of a
great
classicism."
Sybel's praise
was
vaguely
worded,
but it
surely
reflected the ambivalence that he and
many
of his fellow liberals
felt toward unmediated
popular political
movements of the time. The
appeal
of the Romische Geschichte
lay
then in its indictment of Roman
popular
sovereignty
as
intractably revolutionary;
and
Sybel
most
appreciated
the
27C. von
Rotteck,
Allgemeine
Geschichte von
Anfang
der historischen Kenntnis bis
aufunsere
Zeit 7
(Freiburg 1830)
9.14.
437
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Romische Geschichte's
negative
evaluation of the Roman
Republic
as an
historical
argument
in
support
of the distinction he and other moderate
liberals of his time wished to make between
popular (i.e., revolutionary)
sovereignty
and the
sovereignty
of the state.28
But
Sybel may
well have misunderstood the R6mische Geschichte.
Mommsen had no
political
or historical interest in
championing
the notion
of a state
sovereignty.
More
importantly,
his historical method and his
professed
intention to "force the ancients to
step
down from the
imaginary
stage,
on which the mass of the audience sees
them,
into the real world"
hardly
mandated the
simple application
of
judgments
on Rome to contem-
porary
politics.29
For
Mommsen,
it seems that the modernization of the
Roman world demanded the "historization" of the
perspective
of the histor-
ian and his audience. He was never reluctant to
give
his evaluation of the
Republic's
institutions as
they developed
and of Rome's
many outstanding
figures,
but
every judgment
in the R6mische Geschichte was
carefully
im-
bedded in an historical
perspective
defined
by
the nature and
potential
of the
Republic,
not
by
the
exigencies
of the author's
contemporary political sys-
tem. No assessment of the
Republic ignored
the
uniqueness
of Rome's
situation or the
many
vicissitudes of its
history
and,
certainly,
none claimed
to be final.
Thus Mommsen's assessment of revolution in the
Republic.
While he was
convinced that the
sovereignty
of the Roman
people
led
inevitably
to the
destruction of the
Republic,
he stressed that the
revolutionary potential
of
the Roman constitution nonetheless functioned as a creative element from
the
beginning
of the
Republic's history.
The
right
of
provocatio, although,
for
Mommsen,
the
mainstay
of Roman civil
liberties,
was
only
the most
obvious
example
of an institution that functioned
through
the
ability
of
populus
Romanus to voice its own
interests;
that
is,
through
its
sovereignty.
The
potential
for revolution
was,
in
fact,
treated
by
Mommsen as a
primary
ingredient
of the entire set of constitutional reforms of the
Republic's
first
generation,
to which the Roman citizen owed his
political
freedom. The
office of the
tribuniplebis,
in
particular,
was
represented
as the direct result
28H. von
Sybel (above,
n.
2)
1.364. The work
clearly
was intended as an
apology
for the
brand of
political history
that was
developed by
German liberals on the foundation of the
critical historical tradition and in
opposition
to Ranke and his conservative
compatriots.
Hence
Sybel's pronouncement
that "what is new
(in
the recent German historical
writing)
lies al-
together
in the author's altered stance toward the state"
(ibid.). Among
the liberals of the 1840s
and
1850s,
J.
G.
Droysen
was the
greatest spokesman (see,
for
example,
his lectures on
historical
method,
published
since his death as the Historik
[Stuttgart
and Bad Cannstatt
1977],
ed. P.
Leyh)
and one of the most avid
practitioners (see
his Geschichte derpreussischen Politik
14 vols.
[Leipzig 1855-1886])
of this new
genre
of historical
writing.
29So Mommsen in a letter to Wilhelm
Henzen,
quoted by
Wickert, (above,
n.
5)
3.628. On
the
perspective
of Mommsen's
judgments
in the Romische
Geschichte,
see A.
Heuss,
Theodor
Mommsen und das 19.
Jahrhundert (Kiel 1956)
73-74.
PHOENIX 438
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MOMMSEN'S ROMISCHE GESCHICHTE
of
revolution,
and the tribunes'
power,
even after it had become an
accepted
part
of the constitution-as the Romische Geschichte intimated and the
Staatsrecht formulated
expressly-remained
in
equal
measure
legitimate
and
revolutionary:
No nation carried
through
the task of constitutional reform with such consummate
courage
as the Roman nation in the
struggle
of the
plebs
for
equality;
but no nation
articulated the work of revolution-however much this
theoretically
and
practically
split
the state's
organization-in
the form of a
lasting
institution,
as the Romans did
in the Plebeian institutions.
(Staatsrecht 3.143-144)
In the
Strafrecht,
Mommsen carried this notion of an institutionalized
potential
for revolution one
step
further. There he stated that "Roman crim-
inal law does not
recognize
the overthrow of the constitution as treason
[perduellio];
the
attempt
to
change
the
existing
constitution is in itself
legal,
although
a violation of the law
may
occur in the means that are
employed."
Mommsen
supported
this
striking
statement
by drawing
on the common
claim of
Republican legal
theorists that
every
citizen in the
Republic
had the
right
and the
duty
"to
destroy,
without
prior proceedings, any
man who is
striving
for,
or who has
already
achieved monarchical
power."30
Paradoxi-
cally,
for
Mommsen,
the
Republic
secured itself
against
revolution with
revolution; or,
in the careful
terminology
of his later
legal
studies,
the
constitution of the
Republic
was itself a "formal revolution"
(Strafrecht
551,
937).
These remarks on the
revolutionary aspects
of the
Republic,
scattered
throughout
the R6mische
Geschichte,
the
Staatsrecht,
and the
Strafrecht,
may
be
compared
with Mommsen's
thoroughly systematic
treatment in the
Staatsrecht of
revolutionary
elements in the
Principate.31
If the constitution
of the
Republic incorporated potential
or formal
revolution,
the
Principate,
Mommsen
believed,
was founded
upon
revolution in an active and
perman-
ent state. The
Principate,
in other
words,
was an institution that existed
through
the direct
expression
of the will of the
people (usually
in the form of
an
army's
acclamation of its
commanding officer)
and that lasted as
long
as
30Strafrecht
550-551. It is an
interesting
feature of Mommsen's
concept
of revolution that he
understood revolution as a direct
expression
of the will of the
people,
and
yet
he believed that a
revolution could be undertaken
by
even a
single
individual. Parallel to the
passage
in the
Strafrecht
that refers to the Roman
Republic
is the
following,
from Staatsrecht
2.842,
on
imperial
succession in the
Principate:
"The transition of the
Principate,
in its
essence,
that is in
the
imperium, although
not an act of the free self-determination of the individual
citizen,
is
nonetheless an act that
may
be based either on the decree of the senate or on the acclamation of
any
random
group
of
soldiers,
so
that,
in
actuality, every
soldier
[jeder bewaffnete Mann]
has
the
right
to make
any
other
man,
though
not
himself,
an
emperor."
31See the
entirety
of the second section of Staatsrecht vol.
2,
and the excellent
study by
A.
Heuss,
"Theodor Mommsen und die revolutionare Struktur des r6mischen
Kaisertums,"
ANRW 2.1
(Berlin 1974)
77-90.
439
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the
people's
will remained
unchanged.
There was no
continuity
in the Prin-
cipate,
therefore,
because the
emperor's power, although
otherwise
virtually
limitless,
did not allow him to circumvent a new
appeal
to the
people
when it
came to matter of
selecting
a successor.32 Mommsen's evaluation of the
Principate
followed
directly
from this
interpretation:
"It is clear that in
comparison
with this
institution,
which raises lawlessness to a norm and
conjures up
its
possession
of
highest
office with violence and
injustice,
even
the most
perverted
manner of
fixing
the succession would be a
blessing
for
the
community"
(Staatsrecht
2.1144).
But
here,
as in his treatment of the
Republic,
Mommsen linked the
revolutionary
character of the constitution
with the freedom of the
people,
thus
conceding
a beneficial side to this
revolutionary aspect
of the
Principate.
"The
Principate,"
Mommsen wrote
at one
point
in the
Staatsrecht,
"is an
autocracy
that is
tempered by
a
legally
permanent
revolution."33 In other
words,
revolution served as a check
upon
the
power
of
theprinceps,
just
as the
Republic's legalization
of
revolutionary
activity protected
its constitution
against
itself.
Mommsen did
not,
of
course,
continue the Romische Geschichte
past
the
death of Caesar. The fourth
volume,
covering
the
Principate,
was left un-
written,
and the fifth
volume,
Ldnder und Leute von Caesar bis
Diocletian,
when it
finally appeared
in
1885,
followed a format that could in no
way
be
construed as a continuation of the
original
three volumes. Mommsen ex-
plained
his
unwillingness
to continue the R6mische Geschichte
past
the fall
of the
Republic by invoking
the
scarcity
of reliable material. "We can under-
stand the institutions
[of
the
Principate] reasonably
well,"
Mommsen wrote
to Wilamowitz in
1884,
"but
antiquity
itself did not know its historical
development,
and we will never
guess
it."34 But the lack of sufficient evid-
ence was not the entire
story.
There are
strong
intimations in the Romische
Geschichte and the Staatsrecht that the institutional structure of the Princi-
pate
overwhelmed and stifled its historical
development;
that
is,
the Princi-
pate
absorbed revolution within itself so
completely
that it
put
an end to
the
dynamic struggle
between
constitutionally delegated authority
and
potentially revolutionary
sovereignty,
which Mommsen
represented
in the
Romische Geschichte as the
engine
of the
Republic's
historical movement.
Lacking
a true constitution in Mommsen's liberal
sense,
the
Principate
was
simply
not an
appropriate
subject
for narrative
history.
32Staatsrecht
2.1133-1143,
and
Heuss,
op.
cit. 82-83.
33Staatsrecht 2.1133. In his short
essay,
"Der letzte
Kampf
der r6mischen
Republik.
Ein
Bruchstiick,"
Hermes 11
(1878)
90-105
(reprinted
in Gesammelte
Schriften [above,
n.
12]
4.333-347)
Mommsen discussed what he saw as the one
single
moment,
immediately following
the death of
Nero,
when the senate had the
opportunity
to re-establish the
Republic,
but lacked
the
necessary courage.
After
that,
Mommsen was
convinced,
neither the senate nor the
emperor
was
capable
of
dismembering
the
Principate.
34Quoted
by
A.
Wucher,
Theodor Mommsen.
Geschichtsschreibung
und Politik
(Gottingen
1956)
132. Cf. Heuss
(above,
n.
31)
82.
PHOENIX 440
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MOMMSEN'S ROMISCHE GESCHICHTE
IV
Mommsen's account of the
Principate
in the Staatsrecht
clearly
recalled
and relied on his
analysis
of the
Republic.
But the treatment the
Principate
received in the Staatsrecht also
completed
the R6mische Geschichte. The
Staatsrecht's account was the final
argument
that the Roman Revolution was
a failure and left no doubt
that,
in Mommsen's
mind,
the crisis of the
Republic's
last
century
was not
preliminary
to a
entirely
new constitutional
order,
but was rather a
prescription
for an institutionalized form of
tyranny.
This
consistency
in Mommsen's vision of the constitutional
history
of
Rome
compels
us to search for an answer to the
question
his treatment of
the Roman constitution seems
always
to
invite,
namely
whether
political
freedom was
possible
in the Roman
Republic
without the extremes of
revolution.
This was a
question
that Mommsen could not avoid. Not
finding
an
answer,
the reader would conclude that the author of the R6mische Ge-
schichte was convinced that Rome's failure was
pre-determined by
some
higher
order.
Although
some of Mommsen's liberal
contemporaries, partic-
ularly
those close to
Hegel,
were
willing
to write ancient
history
with the
help
of a deus ex
machina,
Mommsen exhibited no tendencies of this sort.35
The Romische Geschichte shows that Mommsen had
every
intention of an-
swering
the
question
of
why
the institutions that
brought
the Roman citizen
his
political rights
were the
very
same as those that
brought
revolution to
Rome,
in
fact,
it addressed the
question
at the
precise
moment in the narra-
tive when the constitution's limitless
potential
for revolution first
began
to
be realized: when Tiberius Gracchus
presented
his
package
of reform mea-
sures to the
people (see especially
RG
2.86-105).
Mommsen's
answer,
in its basic
outline,
was
strikingly
traditional: Rome
grew beyond
the
potential
of the constitution to
govern
it. The
increasing
number of
potential
office-holders
and,
more
importantly,
the mere size of
the citizen
body crippled
the function of Rome's institutions.36 This was
very nearly
what
Montesquieu
had written a
century
earlier,
and it has
been
developed
in
great
detail in our time.37 But Mommsen's
explanation
is
35J. G.
Droysen
is the best
example.
See his "Vorwort zur Geschichte des Hellenismus"
(1843),
included in Hiibner's edition of the Historik
(Munich 1960) 369-385,
at 382. On the
dramatic elements in
Droysen's
notions of the
writing
of
history,
see
my "J.
G.
Droysen
and
the
Aeschylean
Hero,"
CP 79
(1984)
1-14.
36Mommsen
anticipated
his treatment of the failure of the Gracchi at RG
1.783-829, where,
however,
in
discussing
the
domestically quiet
third
century,
he noted the
"oncoming
sickness
and omens of revolution"
(829)
in all
parts
of the
constitution,
not alone in the character of the
assemblies.
37See
Montesquieu,
Considerations on the Causes
of
the Greatness
of
the Romans and their
Decline,
tr. D. Lowenthal
(New
York
1965)
91-95.
Among
historians of our
century
who have
followed Mommsen's lead are Matthias
Gelzer,
for
example,
"Gemeindestaat und Reichstaat"
441
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unique
in the
emphasis
it
places
on the comitia and the
contiones,
which
were,
respectively,
the de iure and
defacto legislative
bodies of the
Republic.
"The essential error of the Gracchan revolution rests in a too often
forgotten
situation: the
makeup
of the
popular
assemblies of its
time,"
which con-
sisted,
Mommsen
continued,
"of a few hundred or thousand
individuals,
[who,]
collected from the back
alleys
of the
capital,
deliberated and voted in
the name of the citizen
body."38
In Mommsen's
mind,
these
legislative
bodies were devoid of all reason:
they
would
agree
to
everything
but
they
could follow
through
on
nothing.
But the
problem
of Rome's
legislative
assemblies
lay
not so much in the
incompetence
of the citizens who
partici-
pated,
but in the fact that these assemblies could
only
accommodate a small
portion
of the citizen
body,
and-this is the
key point-the principle
of
political representation
was
absolutely foreign
to them:
Here is the
revenge
of the basic
shortcoming
of the ancient
political system, namely
that it never advanced from a
city
to a state
constitution, or,
what amounts to the
same
thing,
from the
system
of an
original assembly
to that of a
parliament.39
This was a
development,
Mommsen
insisted,
that Rome could
hardly
have
made,
even if the Romans had been
willing
to throw out their traditional
constitution and
begin again.
The Italian
insurgents,
he
believed,
had
had that
very opportunity
in the 90s
B.C.,
but instead of
establishing
a
parliamentary system-the logical
choice for such an
alliance-they merely
adopted
the constitution of the Roman
Republic,
and hence re-established
"the communal
organization,
in a still more nonsensical fashion than be-
fore." It was a
simple
matter of
fact,
Mommsen was
convinced,
that "the
thought
... of
articulating
the
sovereignty
of the
people through
a
represen-
tative
assembly
... is
completely
and
entirely
modern,"
and it is a matter of
historical
experience,
that,
lacking
this
principle,
"the free state is a mon-
strosity" (RG 2.230-231).
This conviction of a fundamental
disparity
between the ancient and
modern state underlies Mommsen's
fundamentally negative
assessment of
the Roman
Republic,
and it also stands behind his
startlingly positive
treat-
(1924), reprinted
in Kleine
Schriften (Wiesbaden 1962) 1.232-247,
and Gelzer's
student,
Chris-
tian
Meier,
Res
publica
amissa
(Wiesbaden 1966)
151-166.
38RG 2.94. In his Abriss des romischen Staatsrecht
(above,
n.
20) 29, 256,
Mommsen made it
clear that he believed that the comitia had not functioned with
integrity
since the
beginning
of
the
reign
of the nobiles.
39RG 2.94. Mommsen's remarks bear a certain resemblance to Rousseau's famous evaluation
of the the decline of the
Republic
in Du Contrat Social of 1762: "In its finest
time,
Rome saw all
the crimes of
tyranny
revived and
nearly perished
because it joined
legislative authority
and
sovereign power
in the same hands"
(7.2).
But the differences overwhelm the similarities:
Mommsen knew that the
legislative competence
of the assemblies was as old as or older than the
Republic,
and
believed,
in direct
opposition
to
Rousseau,
that the
sovereignty
of the
people
could and must be
represented,
and
hence,
in Rousseau's
language,
alienated.
PHOENIX 442
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MOMMSEN'S ROMISCHE GESCHICHTE
ment of
Julius
Caesar. For
Mommsen,
we have
noted,
Caesar was an
angel
of
mercy:
at the moment of his
appearance,
the
Republic
had reached a
point
where it survived
only
to
perpetuate
civil war and Caesar
put
it to death with
a minimum of human sacrifice. But the humanitarian
aspects
of Caesar's
power
and
personality
do not alone account for his
image
in the R6mische
Geschichte. More
important
within the historical work-and also for
the
understanding
of Caesar
throughout
the nineteenth
century-was
Mommsen's
perception
of Caesar as a
perfect
union of monarch and demo-
crat.40 In a notorious
passage (RG
3.476-477),
Mommsen wrote that
Caesar's
monarchy
was
anything
but a contradiction of
democracy,
and
credit must be
given
to Caesar for the
completion
of all the best and the most
sensible in the traditional
program
of the
populares. Nothing
else in
Mommsen's
history provoked
the
controversy
of this attribution of demo-
cratic ideals to the founder of the new
monarchy,41
for it
clearly implied
that
the
progressive
elements in Roman
history
were themselves incommensurate
with the
Republican
constitution. For
Mommsen,
this
implication
is
entirely
correct,
but the basic fault
lay
not in the nature of the demands made
by
the
Gracchi or the later
generations
of the
populares,
but in the fact that the
Roman constitution had no
adequate
means to
represent
and articulate the
sovereignty
of the
populus Romanus-except
in the
person
of an individual
invested with absolute
power.
Caesar did indeed realize the
Volksherrschaft
of the Roman
people
as well as
possible;
his
power
was the
"representation
of the Roman nation
by
its
highest
and most able confidant"
(RG 3.476).
Thus,
for
Mommsen,
he succeeded where
Pericles,
Gaius
Gracchus,
and
Cromwell-all
potential
monarchs-failed: he
gave
the
people
a full and
complete authority
that was mediated
only through
his own
person.
So his
actions
completed
a
revolutionary development,
but
they
turned that devel-
opment away
from its natural conclusion of
enduring
civil war with an
accompanying
bloodshed and
chaos,
by institutionalizing
direct
popular
sovereignty
in the form of the
Principate.
Caesar was the best that Rome
could
hope
for,
given
the inherent limitation of the ancient
constitution,
but
40See
the
chapter
in the third volume of the RG entitled "Die Alte
Republik
und die neue
Monarchie," 3.461-569. On Caesar and
Caesarism,
see A.
Momigliano,
"Per un riesame della
storia dell'idea di
Cesarismo,"
Secondo Contributo alla Storia
degli
Studi Classici
(Rome 1969)
273-282,
along
with his reviews of A. Heuss
(above,
n.
29)
and A. Wucher
(above,
n.
34)
in
Gnomon 30
(1958)
1-6
(reprinted
in
Momigliano,
Secondo Contributo
[above] 421-427),
and
Z.
Yavetz, Julius
Caesar and his Public
Image (London 1982) 10-57,
each with extensive
bibliography.
41Eduard
Meyer's
assessment of Caesar
appears
most
poignant
when it is understood as a
reaction to Mommsen:
"although
Caesar knew how to use the
program
of the democrats and to
entice the masses with
it,
in fact he was
anything
but an admirer of
popular sovereignty,
which
he,
as
monarch,
pushed
aside as a
thing
of little worth.
Rather,
he was an aristocrat
through
and
through."
Caesars Monarchie und die
Principat
des
Pompeius:
innere Geschichte Roms von 66
bis 44 v. Chr.
(Stuttgart
and Berlin
1922)
335.
443
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the
Principate
was
anything
but a
paradigm
for the modern state: "the his-
tory
of Caesar and of Roman
Caesarism,
for all its unexcelled
greatness,
and
for all its historical
necessity,
is
truly
a more
pointed
indictment of modern
autocracy
than the hand of man could
possibly
write"
(RG 3.477).
Mommsen's distinction of the ancient and modern state
is,
of
course,
extreme-most
obviously
extreme in its
categorical judgment
of the charac-
ter and
potential
of the ancient
city-state.
It is doubtful whether Mommsen
would have framed the
problem
of the Roman constitution as the
general
failing
of the ancient
city-state,
if Aristotle's Constitution
of
Athens had been
available in the middle of the
century:
the Aristotelean
work,
with its
proof
that the Athenian constitution in fact
incorporated
the
principle
of
represen-
tation at least to some
degree, suggests
that Rome should not
perhaps
be
regarded
as characteristic for the ancient state.42 But the distinction
Mommsen made between the ancient and modern state is also extreme in its
conviction that a modern
parliamentary system
is
essentially
different and
more fortunate than the ancient
legislative body.
Mommsen's
optimism
is
understandable in the context of the
1850s,
in the immediate aftermath of
the Revolution of 1848 that seemed to be
self-limiting
and to aim not for
monarchy
but for
parliamentary representation.
But Mommsen's own
long
and often
frustrating political
involvement inside and outside of his national
parliament
after the Revolution of 1848 and into the time of Bismarck, if it
did not
temper
his conviction that the
parliamentary system
is the sole
means
by
which the
people's sovereignty
could be
appropriately
articulated,
certainly taught
him that a
parliament's professed goal
of
developing
and
educating
the
political
will of the
people
can
easily
hide the less noble
intention of
restricting popular political participation.43
420n the
impact
of the Athenaion
Politeia,
which was first
published
in
1891,
see
J.
A.
O.
Larsen,
Representative
Government in Greek and Roman
History (Berkeley 1955) 6, 192-193,
n. 13.
43Wucher
(above,
n.
34),
and Wickert
(above,
n.
5)
both
give adequate
accounts of
Mommsen's
political
activities from 1848 on
through
the
period
of the
Reichsgriindung.
K.
Christ,
in his Von Gibbon zu
Rostovtzeff(Darmstadt 1973) 91-92,
records Mommsen's bitter
frustration with the "Faulnis der Nation" and lack of
political
interest,
in
1892,
after a
parlia-
mentary system
had come to hold
legislative
force over all of
Germany.
In the last
years
of his
life,
Mommsen showed considerable interest in Theodor Barth's
attempt
to
bring
about a
coalition of liberals and social
democrats,
and in this manner to
rejuvenate
the Liberal
Party
and
re-solidify
its
relationship
with the broader mass of the
people. (Cf.
A. Heuss
[above,
n.
29]
215-220.)
It seems that Mommsen would not have tolerated the
thought,
common
enough
today,
that
representative government
is more stable for the
very
reason that it
effectively
limits
political participation;
for
Mommsen,
parliamentary representation
functioned to educate the
people
and channel them into the
political system
as
qualified participants,
not to exclude them
from it. Thus Mommsen's idea of the
parliamentary system
is
comparable
to the characteristi-
cally
liberal notion of
Bildung,
for which see
J. J. Sheehan,
German Liberalism in the 19th
Century (Chicago 1978)
26-27.
444 PHOENIX
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MOMMSEN'S ROMISCHE GESCHICHTE
These reflections are
particularly pertinent
to the difficult
question
of the
viability
of Mommsen's
understanding
of ancient and modern
government,
and the
appropriateness
of the
concepts
such as
sovereignty
and the
delega-
tion of
power,
that he and his
contemporaries
used to
portray
it-a
question
that lies far
beyond
the
scope
of this
study.
But however it is
answered,
Mommsen's view of the Roman constitution must be seen in connection
with his intricate notion of
revolution,
which marks his
place
in the his-
toriography
of his
time,
and also has close connections to the
history
of
Roman law. In the context of the Romische
Geschichte,
Mommsen's inter-
pretation
of the nature of revolution and of the difference between the
ancient and modern state accounts for the work's vision of an
all-embracing
movement in Roman
history
toward a
single,
certain
end,
and also for the
author's conviction that the historical crime of men like the Gracchi and
Pompey
was not that
they
threatened or weakened the
Republic's
constitu-
tion,
but rather that
they
failed to
replace
it before "the exhaustion of the
physical
and
spiritual
forces of the nation" had set in.44 Thus Mommsen's
general
attitude toward the
Republic:
the Roman
Republic
was
great
in its
resilience and its
Biirgersinn,
and it was
certainly antiquity's
noblest
experi-
ment in civil
liberty,
but it could not make the distinction between reform
and revolution or between revolution and
political
freedom. As a conse-
quence, revolutionary monarchy
was Rome's inevitable
destiny
and true
political
freedom-without revolution as its direct
consequence-would
have to wait for the modern
age.45
ALLEGHENY
COLLEGE,
MEADVILLE,
PENN. 16335
44RG 1.276. On Tiberius
Gracchus,
see RG
2.96;
on
Pompey,
RG 3.106
(see
also B.
Croke,
"Mommsen's
Pompey," Quaderni
di Storia 22
[1985] 137-149).
Here Mommsen recalls W.
Drumann
(above,
n.
22)
1.iv "one must
regret
a nation whose
ship
of state
only
reaches the
harbor of
monarchy
when that nation has
degenerated." Altogether
unlike
Mommsen,
how-
ever,
Drumann read the
history
of the Roman
Republic
as an
argument supporting
the modern
monarchy.
That Mommsen's
interpretation
of
popular sovereignty
remained
essentially
the
same
throughout
his life is indicated
by
his statement in Staatsrecht 2.1133 that "the
perfection
of
popular sovereignty
is its
self-negation,"
which
precisely
reiterated his
pronouncement
in
RG 1.276 that
"tyranny
is
everywhere [in antiquity]
the
consequence
of universal
suffrage."
45I wish to
acknowledge
with
gratitude
the
suggestions
of Howard
Kaplan, James Whitman,
Simon
Price,
Arnaldo
Momigliano,
Laura
Gadbery,
and of the referees of Phoenix.
445
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